It is evident that Nigeria has been so abused to a breaking point, that the only thing that seems plausible now is a national dialogue in form of a Sovereign National Conference (SNC). The alternatives to this national dialogue are better imagined than experienced. If there is consensus on the unity of Nigeria because it is “difficult” to split it along “ethnic” lines without resorting to wars, which I am sure no “ethnic” group is ready for, the question then becomes, how do we live peacefully in harmony so that we can build a prosperous nation, pull 99 percent of our population out of poverty, and become a global contender.
We can distinguish four strands of opinions on the SNC debate. There are those who argue that the outcome of a SNC should be, as a minimum, the splitting of the country into at least four parts. What this group is pushing for in reality is a conference of Ethnic Nationalities (CEN) because a Sovereign National Conference in Nigeria cannot be reduced to a conference of ethnic nationalities. To use Edwin Madunagu’s “wall” analogy, a wall is not the sum total of the blocks used in erecting it. If you take the wall as Nigeria, and the blocks as the different ethnic nationalities in the country, you realise that you need more than blocks to erect the wall, and once the wall has been erected, it becomes almost impossible to retrieve the individual blocks in their original state.
The next group is made up of those who like to bury their head in the sand. They argue that the unity of Nigeria should be taken for granted. They talk glibly about the indivisibility of Nigeria. They fail to realize, or refuse to accept, because it suits their immediate interest, that Nigeria is a country in name only; that what holds the country together is the State and its instruments of coercion.
The third group, made up of genuine patriots and democrats, argue that the way out of the current political, social, and economic quagmire is the quick convocation of an SNC, taking into account all the contending interests in the country. The major issue before this group is the procedure for convoking the SNC.
The fourth group on the SNC debate consists of those who argue that the problem of Nigeria is basically that of corruption and bad leadership. That if we tackle these problems, we will be able to eradicate poverty and would not have the kind of centrifugal pull that threatens to rip the country apart. While I agree in principle that the twin evils of corruption and bad leadership are about the greatest problems we have in Nigeria, my point of departure is that to take this position is to presume that we have a nation and it is functional. My response to those pushing this mantra of corruption and bad leadership is that they are putting the cart before the horse. Whether we like it or not we can’t deny the fact that ethnic, religious, political, and social tensions exist in Nigeria. They have always been with us even though they have been heightened by poverty and underdevelopment.
It is too simplistic to argue that once we are able to conduct free and fair elections and have credible leaders, we are on our way to building a prosperous nation. While it is correct to posit that that we can’t have good politics and build sustainable democratic institutions in an underdeveloped nation, it is equally important to note that the “new” leaders we envisage won’t fall from the sky. So how do we create the environment for these leaders to emerge? The answer is that as a nation, we have to develop workable and acceptable rules of political, economic, and social engagement. Today, even though the constitution talks about states and geo-political zones, the country is still divided along the same fault lines that have made unity impossible and development unattainable.
Now that it is apparent that a Sovereign National Conference is one of the very few realistic and safe options to the “clear and present danger” facing the country, the next step is, how do we achieve it? Genuine democrats and progressives have the key to unraveling this mystery. Of course, it is going to be a long and arduous road. For them, political openings have been few and far between. There was an opening between 1993 and 1999, unfortunately they failed to take advantage of it.
Afraid to go for power, they allowed all manner of political miscreants to take over the political space. That miscalculation set the radical movement many years backwards. Today, those mass organizations that were used as platforms for mobilization — Democratic Alternative, CDHR, United Action for Democracy, JACOM, Campaign for Democracy, etc — have all but disappeared. If progressives had their structures in place, the oil subsidy/Occupy Nigeria protests provided a veritable opportunity for the mass to attain political power and change the course of our nation’s history. This shortcoming notwithstanding, the protests showed the willingness and readiness of the mass of our people to be mobilized for change.
The question is no longer whether, because the alternatives are too dire, but when and how? For those who genuinely believe in resolving the problems of the country through an SNC rather than wars, this is the time to begin to organize and mobilize. The quest for the control of the political space to save Nigeria and bring about change will be a difficult task because power, especially of the conservative and reactionary hue, will not concede anything. Those who have suddenly found themselves in power are not thinking of using same to better the lives of Nigerians. Their only interest is how to consolidate and perhaps perpetuate themselves. And they will do anything to achieve their aim and ultimately imperil the nation.
We can’t continue to patch up our problems. Maybe there was a country. If the problem was that it never belonged to the people, then now is the time to reclaim it as a civic space, and humanize it. These times call for a progressive movement that will face up to problems frontally. The focus of this movement should be threefold: (1) hasten the convocation of the SNC by any means necessary (2) define the role radical patriots, genuine democrats, progressives, and popular masses would play at the conference (3) define the shape of the New Nigeria we envisage.
*Onumah is author of Time to Reclaim Nigeria. The book will be presented to the public in Lagos on Saturday, April 14, 2012.